Text Box: PIAnist autographs


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Four page autographed letter signed to Santino Costa, the Director of the Nice Opera, August 17, 1903.  Costa an Italian native in this instance was acting as Díemer’s agent for his Winter tour of Italy.  The letter changes our knowledge of the extent the Massenet piano concerto was performed in its’ earliest years. We offer with a vintage postcard portrait.


August 17, 1903


Dear Mr. Costa,


I am engaged in Rome for this Winter, by the famous Accademià de Santa Cecilia to come and play the Massenet Concerto on February 14th under the Orchestral Direction of Colonne and then to give a piano recital on the Monday following February 21; I therefore wish to have recourse to your extreme obligingness and to your usual kindness for me, to ask you if it would not be possible for you to find me one or two engagements in Italy, either on the way out, or on the return from my trip to Rome; for example in Milan (at the famous Quartet Society where I have already played with the poor and late Delsart) or go out to Naples, or to Florence.  I must be in Rome on February 11 at the latest since the 1st Concert takes place on February 14 and the second on February 21.

Now I will be very grateful to you also if you can organize my engagement in Monte Carlo for the day for Massenet's Concerto, also on the way there or on the return of my trip to Italy.


In the hope of receiving soon a good answer from you on all this, Please believe my dear Mr. Costa, with kind and devoted sentiments of..


Louis Díemer


Our good memories to Madame Costa please.

Díemer (1843-1919) in 1903 was the most important piano pedagogue in Paris and at 60 was still touring as a concert pianist.  Jules Massenet (1842-1912) and Díemer were classmates at the Paris Conservatoire and lifelong friends.  Massenet is revered for his many operas, but what is not well known is his intent to become a concert pianist.  He even grew his hair long á la Liszt and the other virtuosi of his day.   However in July 1856 the annual piano prize competition at the Conservatoire changed all of that. Louis Díemer won first prize and he earned fourth prize, ranked number two of the three “premier accessit” awards; the certificate of merit prizes.  Not a bad, but not the auspicious start to a pianist career.  That said, he never held a grudge against Díemer, in fact they remained close friends until his death.  Díemer went on to a decorated career as a concert pianist and harpsichordist and Massenet went on to become the most important French opera composer of his generation. 

Fast forward to 1863, the year Massenet won the Prix de Rome and took his place at the Villa Medici there in 1864.  A young composer who had never lived outside of France, for the first time had the ability to work freely and initially, he explored the City and travelled.  Needing money, he took on several of Liszt’s private pupils as the Master was living in Rome at the time and had more pupils than he had hours of the day and Massenet impressed him.  He also began to compose, his first complete works were a requiem and an overture which were sent to Ambroise Thomas in Paris for his approval and comments.  During this time he began working on a piano concerto for himself.  The work was tabled as he began to take on other projects.  The work was tabled and he would return to it from time to time.  In 1901/1902, Díemer was looking for a work to premiere.  He had discussed the piano concerto over the years with Massenet and the composer decoded he would turn his earlier sketches into a virtuosic concerto for his friend.  Both were regular attendees of the local concerts in Paris of the time, so Massenet was very aware of what was going on with the younger composers of the time.  The piece he was creating was more in line with the grand bravura concertos of the 1830’s through the 1880’s and it would appear intentionally so.  The work is constructed in three parts, each quite distinct; andante moderato, largo and Airs Slovaques - allegro. The first movement is distinctly Massenet but perhaps taking cues from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky with its’ runs and grand arpeggios.  The second largo movement is dark and brooding and in one part reminiscent of the duet between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni and Mozart’s opera.  The final movement is a grand romp through Eastern Europe with a Lisztian field.  However, Massenet truly speaks throughout with his own voice. By today’s standards, it does fit in very nicely with the Romantic piano concerto repertory, however it is not widely known perhaps due to Massenet’s reputation in the opera world. Massenet’s problem was the world where he launched it had moved on from the Grand virtuosic piano concerto.  He was living in the world of Debussy and Ravel who were the flavor of the time and changing music in France as they did it.  Debussy never wrote a piano concerto and Ravel’s would come later, but Massenet was bringing back the style which was no longer relevant.  The World Premiere on February 1st, 1903 at the Concerts au Conservatoire did not go as well as Massenet had hoped.  The majority of criticism was sent the way of Díemer who modern day music historians accuse of being too “long in the tooth” at 60.  The January 8, 1908 Le Ménestrel the most important musical journal in Paris described a series of concerts by Díemer in Grenoble as a “magnifique excursion artistique”, and a harpsichord - piano concert he gave in Lausanne as “admirable”.  So Díemer’s skills were not in question five years later by the French press.  We also know from a 1904 edition of the same journal that Díemer and his wife held a concert at their home for Massenet and the pianist George de Lausnay performed the first movement of the concerto at the house concert.  We have Mark Hambourg’s criticism of Díemer after the performance, “dry as dust with a hard rattling tone”.  That said, Hambourg can be discounted as he never was particularly kind to his competitors.  Leopold Godowsky once told some friends after Hambourg had a memory lapse at a concert, “"It wasn't what he forgot that was so frightful, It was what he remembered!"  The Berlin based musicologist Hans Engel described the concerto at the nadir of French solo piano concertos.  It is not known if he in fact ever heard the concerto himself, or was making a statement based upon information he had received.  We know the concerto was given a second performance at the Colonne Concerts in October of 1903.  Based upon this letter, we further know it was given a performance at Santa Cecilia on February 14th,  1904 with Díemer at the piano and Édouard Colonne on the podium and we also know if was given a performance with the same duo at the Monte Carlo Casino Opera House on February 2nd, 1904, (Massenet, A Chronicle of His Life and Times by Demar Irving) Musicologists who have written about the concerto in recent years did not do their due diligence and have stated it had “tepid reviews” and did not play past the first performance.  So we know that it received performances with my cursory research for at least a year afterwards including by Georges Delausnay..  In fact today, there are a number of recordings available, as well as live videos, in particular the one by Aldo Ciccolini is well worth a listen. 

A historic and important letter which alters the current musicology on the concerto!